Curriculum Lectionary


GilgameshGenesisBiblical prophetsGospelsQur'anRumi and Kabir
Bhagavad GitaUpanishadsDhammapadaHeart and Lotus SutrasTao Te ChingAnalects


Session 1
Defined by Emptiness: The Heart Sutra
Session 2
Turning the Wheel of the Law: The Lotus Sutra
Session 3
The Heart of Compassion: The Lotus Sutra

Leader Notes

A large portion of the Lotus Sutra is devoted to descriptions of the various followers of the Buddha and how they will eventually attain buddhahood. Although we will not see all of this in today’s readings, the Sutra tells us of the future buddhahood of millions of beings, including women, children, non-humans, and evil persons. In many versions of Buddhism, persons such as these would be told that they could hope for a better rebirth but that enlightenment was out of their reach in this lifetime; the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, and the Lotus Sutra in particular, shows enlightenment to be open to all persons, although not always in one lifetime.

You many need to note the difference between nirvana and extinction: the Lotus Sutra explains nirvana as a state one enters where rebirth is no longer necessary, but it is not the same as extinction, the complete “blowing out of the candle” of anything that could be considered a self.

There are many translations of the Lotus Sutra that you may use, but the one we will be quoting throughout these sessions is The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra, translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society (full bibliographic information is given in Leader Resource 2), which can be found at http://www.cttbusa.org/lotus/lotus_contents.asp

Words Used in Today’s Readings:
anuttarasayaksambodhi – perfect enlightenment
asamkhyeyas – an extremely large number
bodhi – enlightenment
bodhisattva - one who vows to remain within the cycle of death and rebirth until all
     sentient beings achieve liberation
Buddha – one who has gained enlightenment and is released from the bonds of rebirth
dharma – teachings of the true nature of things
dharani – a protection spell or chant
dhyanasamadi – deep meditation
Great Vehicle – the literal meaning of “Mahayana”, that which can carry all beings toward enlightenment
Hearer Dharmas – the way of those who come to understand the dharma through hearing the words of the Buddha
kotis – an extremely large number
kshana – an extremely short period of time, such as the time between two thoughts
paramitas – perfections
quiescence - complete rest, having no activity
Shakyamuni – the “Sage of the Shakyas”, a title of the historical Buddha referring to his clan
Thus Come One – an honorific title of the Buddha

  • To gain an understanding of the concept of Buddhahood
  • To explore the levels of enlightenment
  • To reflect on the concept of compassion for all sentient beings
  • Print copies of the readings for this session from Leader Resource 2, if necessary.
  • Print Leader Resource 7 for use with Activity 3: The Bodhisattva Vow. Make copies if you wish to hand these out to participants.
Leader Resources
Leaver Resource 7: The Four Great Vows -
Leader Resource 2: Readings -
  • Chalice with candle and matches
  • Tingshas or a bell
  • Whiteboard or chalkboard and writing implements, or copies of the Four Great Vows given in Leader Resource 7
If You Only Have One Hour
  • Skip The Dragon Child question under Activity 1 and all of Activity 2: The Movie Theater

Chalice lighting and opening meditation (5 minutes)

Activity 1: Reading and Discussion (35 minutes)

Activity 2: The Movie Theater (25 minutes)

Activity 3: The Bodhisattva Vow (20 minutes)

Chalice extinguishing and closing chant (5 minutes)

Chalice Lighting

Ask a participant to light the chalice as you read the passage below. Invite participants to spend a few moments in silent meditation.


This Sutra is hard to hear,
And those who believe it and accept it are also rare...
Those who hear this profound Sutra,
Will thoroughly understand the Hearer Dharmas.
This is the king of Sutras
And as to those who hear it and ponder upon it,
You should know that such people,
Have drawn close to the Buddhas’ wisdom.

Lotus Sutra, Chapter 10

(Buddhist Text Translation Society)


After a few moments have passed, ring the tingshas or otherwise signal the end of the meditation.

Activity One

Reading and Discussion

Chapter 12            “At that time…will become a Buddha.”

  • Devadatta is a famous villain in Buddhist literature. We are told that in a past life where the Buddha was a king, Devadatta was a sage who helped him. During the Buddha’s historical lifetime, Devadatta was his cousin and follower who eventually left to form him own monastic school. According to stories from many sutras in which he is presented as the absolute embodiment of evil action, Devadatta was jealous of the Buddha’s success and in acts of shocking betrayal tried on at least 3 occasions to have him killed. The Lotus Sutra’s claim that Devadatta will eventually attain enlightenment would have been quite astounding to its first readers. What does this say about the possibilities of attaining Buddhahood? To whom is it open?

The Dragon Child
Chapter 12            “Manjushri said…wonderful Dharma.”

  • In this story, Buddhahood is attained by a non-human female child, although traditionally any one of these three characteristics would have been considered enough to make Buddhahood impossible. Does the fact that the dragon child converts instantly to a man before achieiving Buddhahood mean that the traditional understanding is, after all, correct? Or is this simply a way of showing that all such distinctions are merely illusion?

The Buddha’s Presence
Chapter 16            “From the time….speaking the Dharma.”

  • The Buddha says that he has been around for millions of years, but never passes into extinction. What does this mean about who or what he is? Does this change our understanding of the Buddha, or of the believer’s relationship to him?

Leader Resources
Leader Resource 2: Readings -
Activity Two

The Movie Theater

The purpose of this activity is twofold: to help participants understand the different levels of enlightened beings, and more importantly, to help them grasp the concept that even reaching enlightenment is not the ultimate goal, that one must continue to move beyond.

You will need to introduce the concept of the hierarchy of beings as it is understood in the Lotus Sutra. Write the hierarchy on the board, or at least write numbers 6-10 as they will be needed later in the class.  Information about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is given in Leader Resource 6.

The Hierarchy of Beings
All sentient beings exist somewhere in the hierarchy, and can move up or down in future lives depending on actions in this life. Although the life cycles of some may be extremely long, such as for heavenly beings or “gods”, they all are ultimately subject to mortality, still trapped within the wheel of death and rebirth:

1.     Hell dwellers
2.     Hungry ghosts or spirits
3.     Beings of animal nature
4.     Asuras – demons engaged in warfare
5.     Humans
6.     Heavenly beings

The next group of beings are still trapped within the wheel, but are consciously striving to be released from it:
7.     Shravakas, voice hearers, those who hear the words of the Buddha and strive
             to be worthy
8.     Pratyekabuddhas, those who are have worked out the meaning of enlightenment
             for themselves and seek it

9.     Boddhisatvas, who out of deep compassion seek enlightenment for themselves
             and others

And finally, we come to the only beings who have been released:
10. Buddhas

Ask participants to settle themselves quietly so that together you may embark on a guided meditation. Read slowly, allowing the images to settle into the participants’ minds.


Imagine that you are sitting in a darkened theater, watching a movie on the screen. You’re totally engrossed in what is going on with the characters and the storyline, because you’ve never once in all your born days seen or known anything other than what is on the screen. What you see on the screen you believe to be true. You believe you’ve seen the sun because you’ve seen the sunshine on the screen.

You hear something. It sounds like someone is calling you. You try to discover what or who that could be and for the first time ever you begin to look around. In amazement you see that everyone is staring at a screen, that what you and everyone else has taken for real life is nothing more than an illusion. You get up and move around. But still, all you know of sunshine is what you’ve seen on the screen.

Then you discover that the theater has a door. A door! That means that there is someplace else to go. You walk out into the lobby. Now you know that there is more than one room, that things other than screens and chairs exist. Hey, there’s popcorn here! You’ve achieved a lot. But still no sun.

Finally, you are drawn to a window, and for the first time ever you see sunshine. You cannot yet feel it on your skin or caressing your face, but you see the door leading to the outside and know that you can walk out of it. You are free to walk out of it. But what about all the people stuck in their chairs in the theater? Don’t they deserve to see the sunshine too? So you run back in and tell people about this sunshine that you’ve seen, and that they can come and see it too. Many times you enter, trying to get people to follow you out. A few come, most don’t, but you keep trying. Back in, back in again, over and over and over.

Then, one day, as you have helped yet another group get to the lobby, you realize that your time for doing this work is over. Others who have seen the sun through the window are doing the work of trying to save those trapped by their own illusions back inside the theater. Suddenly you know that it is time to step out the final door, without turning back.


Anyone recognize Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, all dressed up in modern clothes? Elaborated just a bit, it becomes a good fit to try to explain the Mahayana Buddhist understanding of enlightenment.

The unenlightened, levels 1-6, are seated in the theater. The hell dwellers are in agony, hating every second of what they see, while those higher in the hierarchy are having a progressively more pleasant experience, all the way up to  the heavenly beings are having a rollicking good time. But ultimately, all are completely held in the sway of the screen.

The voice-hearers have heard the call and can look around the darkened room. The pratyekabuddhas have made it out to the lobby. The bodhisattvas have been to the window and seen the sun, but in their compassion for those trapped in the theater they make the choice to go back in and try to convince others to simply open their eyes to the truth. All are still stuck in the theater, even if by choice.

The one who has actually walked out the door – that is a buddha.


  • How do you think you would you feel when you first recognized that you were seated in a theater?
  • What might your experience be the first time you saw the sun through the window?
  • How would you try to tell people the truth?
  • How would you expect them to react?
  • What do you take away from this story?
Leader Resources
Leader Resource 6: Plato's Cave -
Activity Three

The Bodhisattva Vow

The purpose of this activity is to get participants to take seriously the idea of compassion. This term is thrown about a great deal when we talk about Buddhism, but often just as a synonym for “being nice.” What is the true meaning of this word, and how can it serve as a spiritual call, even to non-Buddhists?

Read the quote and explanation below to participants. Write the Four Great Vows and the questions on a whiteboard or chalkboard, or pass out copies of them. (Both the Vows and the questions are given in Leader Resource 7.) Break participants into groups of two or three and ask them to discuss the questions.                                                

"[S]hould there be one who hears but a single verse or a single sentence of The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra or who has even one thought of rejoicing in it, I bestow upon him as well a prediction of anuttarasamyaksambodhi.”

“Further, should there be one who receives and upholds, reads and recites, explains and teaches, or copies out The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra, be it even a single verse, looking upon the Sutra text with reverence as he would the Buddha himself, making various kinds of offerings of flowers, incense, beads, powdered incense, paste incense, burning incense, silk canopies, banners, clothing and music, or who even join his palms in reverence…you should know that such a person has in the past already made offerings to tens of myriads of millions of Buddhas, in the presence of those Buddhas, accomplishing great vows. It is out of pity for living beings that he is born among human beings."
                    Lotus Sutra, Chapter 10
                    (Buddhist Text Translation Society)

We are gathered here reading and expounding the Lotus Sutra, so according to this teaching, we are bodhisattvas who have chosen this incarnation so that we may help sentient beings. You are a bodhisattva; not just someone in a far-off land or a distant time – you.


  • What would it mean to you truly to believe that you have chosen this incarnation, and that your choice was motivated by compassion for all beings?
  • What is the real meaning of compassion? How does it differ from “being nice”?
  • Look at the Four Great Vows that are traditionally understood to be the vows of a bodhisattva. Do you feel in your own life that you move toward these vows? Does one or the other seem to you to be lighting the path of your own spiritual journey?
  • We see in the Vows that the work is innumerable, inexhaustible, immeasurable – the work is never done. If we hold this to be true, how do we avoid despair and instead move into deeper compassion?
  • What is one area of your life where you can commit yourself to showing greater compassion?

Leader Resources
Leaver Resource 7: The Four Great Vows -
Chalice Extinguishing

Ask a participant to blow out the candle as you read the following:

One who can receive and uphold
The Wonderful Dharma Flower Sutra
You should know the Buddha sent him,
Out of pity for living beings.
Those who can receive and hold
The Wonderful Dharma Flower Sutra,
Have renounced their pure lands,
And, pitying beings, have been reborn here.
            Lotus Sutra, Chapter 10
            (Buddhist Text Translation Society)